This is a follow-up to Guns, Germs and Steel that could be called Just Germs: it’s not that the natives lost to the colonialists in armed combat, it’s that there were no natives left to fight by the time colonializing started in earnest. The colonialists waltzed into what was effectively a ghost continent. This created the myth of the Noble Savage, living in harmony with nature; the truth is that native civilizations were decimated to the point where they could no long manipulate nature.
Charles Mann is a journalist (Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology and birds) but the book’s research feels thorough and up-to-date: I haven’t found any major academic criticism online. The book itself is over 9000 pages long due to huge amounts of historical background. The background is quite interesting, but I think a lot of it could be cut without weakening the argument.
The first theme is why the Algonquians didn’t drive the Pilgrims into the sea. The unnecessary background is about Tisquantum, the Pilgrim’s Uncle Tom. As Mann tells it, his story is much more interesting and epic than Pocahontas and John Smith. (1491 should be optioned!)
The second theme is the pre-European colonializations of America by humans. The key question addressed here is whether the Indians are “responsible” for the extinction of most potential livestock and beasts-of-burden in America. There’s lots of interesting information in this chapter, but Mann doesn’t manage to give a definitive answer to the question.
The third theme is the fall of the Inca Empire. The Aztecs and Mayans get significantly less space, probably because they’re better covered in Guns, Germs and Steel and the Incas should have been better positioned to resist the Spanish: the Inca Empire is one of the largest continuous empires by latitude that has ever existed. The only two things that ever made it over the Andes are corn and disease and Mann is unfortunately unable to offer an explanation for why disease hit the Incas before the Spanish arrived.
The book is focused on the civilizations that one would reasonably expect to resist conquest. I was expecting the book to be about the state of America before colonialization. For example, James Douglas chose the location for Fort Victoria because he admired the natural rolling fields, which were in fact being slashed & burned for camas by the Songhees.